Mike Mussina was standing in the bright sunshine. Home plate was in the shadows. In left field, B.J. Surhoff was yelling that he no longer could see the ball in the late afternoon glare. The tying run was at first base, the winning run at the plate. There were two outs in the ninth, and Mussina's pitch count was getting perilously high.
But if the Orioles' fielders were having trouble seeing the ball, imagine what the White Sox hitters were going through, with Mussina's nasty assortment of pitches emerging out of the blinding light. Greg Norton didn't stand a chance, striking out to end the Orioles' 3-2 victory at Comiskey Park, the Orioles' eighth win in their last nine games.
"That's why we all hate 3:05 starts," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said. "You can't see anything. On every ball hit in the ninth inning, all of us in the dugout were trying to figure out where it was."
Mussina was smiling, though, having improved to 9-3 with his second complete game of the season, while throwing 129 pitches and striking out a season-high nine batters.
"I had the elements helping me out," Mussina said with a grin.
Mussina had a 3-1 lead to start the ninth, but Frank Thomas -- who came into the game hitting .423 with seven career homers against Mussina -- delivered a leadoff double. Two groundouts later -- both of which second baseman Delino DeShields had trouble focusing on in the shadows -- Thomas scored to cut the lead to 3-2.
"When you can't see ground balls," Mussina said, "you know it's tough."
Chris Singleton then stroked a two-out single. With both closers, Mike Timlin and Arthur Rhodes, ready in the bullpen, Miller went to the mound. According to Miller, here's how the conversation went:
"It boils down to you versus this guy [Norton], or Arthur versus [pinch hitter Darrin] Jackson. I want you to get this guy," Miller said.
"I'll do it," Mussina said.
"Okay," Miller said.
Mussina did it, striking out Norton on three pitches to end the game, giving a modest fist-pump as he strode off the mound to shake catcher Charles Johnson's hand.
"When you get to that point, he's one hitter away" from being yanked, Miller said. "But unless he's got nothing left, I'm going to stay with him."
Having taken batting practice Thursday evening around the same time today's game ended, the Orioles knew what awaited them in the late innings today -- a potent mixture of sunshine and shadow that bisected the field.
"We knew we had to score as much as we could early," Miller said, "because it was going to be tough late."
They managed to get three runs against White Sox starter Jaime Navarro (5-5). Two of the runs came on homers by Surhoff -- who went 2 for 4 to extend his career-high hitting streak to 19 games, during which he is hitting .381 with eight homers -- and Albert Belle, who is hitting .448 (13 for 29) with four RBI since being benched last Friday in Atlanta.
Today, as Belle took his home run trot, clearly enjoying the way he answered the constant chorus of boos and derisive chants at his old home park, he paused briefly at each base for an emphatic stutter-step.
Apparently, his former White Sox teammates didn't appreciate that. Because the next time Belle came up, in the fifth, Navarro drilled him in the ribs with a fastball on the first pitch. Belle never even so much as grimaced in Navarro's direction, but gave the ball a swift kick as he walked to first base. Three pitches later, Belle stole second base on Navarro.
By this time, the shadows were beginning to creep across the field. After Thomas's double to right-center to lead off the ninth, Surhoff began yelling that he never saw the ball and would need help from the infield to find any hit his way.
The ending contained all the same elements of the wrenching 4-2 loss Mussina suffered against Seattle two starts before -- a slim Orioles lead, a rising pitch count, a visit to the mound by Miller and, ultimately, a decision to stay with Mussina. Against Seattle, Mussina gave up a two-run double to Ken Griffey Jr. to lose the game.
"I was remembering that," Mussina admitted. "But I was making better pitches today. They didn't have as many balls hit hard. The two situations, although they look similar, were subtly different."
Other than a rain-shortened five-inning stint in Florida two starts ago, Mussina has pitched at least seven innings in each of his last seven starts. His win today dropped his earned run average to a season-low 3.64.
"In 14 out of 15 starts, I did what I was supposed to do," Mussina said. "They ask me to get the ball to the bullpen in the seventh or eighth or ninth. I've pretty much done that."
CAPTION: Albert Belle delivers his 12th home run of the season to make it 3-0 in the third. Teammate B.J. Surhoff homered for the Orioles in the first, his 15th.
CAPTION: Albert Belle has a lot of friends in dugout after hitting home run to make it 3-0 in the third inning. He is batting .448 since he was benched for a game.